The play was routine.
With just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter, J.T. Barrett scrambled for 10 yards on 2nd-and-11. Fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray brought Barrett down by his legs. Barrett stood up, then grabbed at his right knee and went back to the turf. The trainers came out. Barrett’s day ended with a hobbled walk to the tunnel.
At that point, the Wolverines led by six, despite surrendering a 14-point, first-quarter lead.
Maybe you thought then that Michigan was finally going to change history, that a backup quarterback was incapable of leading his team on a comeback trail.
I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did. That’s all this fan base has known for the better part of three months. The Michigan faithful have learned time and time again this year that there’s no replacing the starting man under center.
But if you thought Barrett’s premature exit was enough, you were wrong.
Because the Buckeyes did what Michigan has failed to do for much of its season. They coped with the loss of their starting quarterback, and found success in the largest of moments anyway.
For Ohio State, its spot in the Big Ten championship game was already a lock. But a continuation of nearly two decades of dominance — and a possibility to sneak into the College Football Playoff that now has legitimate weight — were on the line in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines have found themselves in similar situations for the better part of 10 years, albeit with far less encouraging results.
And in the latest iteration, Urban Meyer handed Dwayne Haskins the keys. The redshirt freshman pushed the accelerator to the floor.
He handled the ball off twice to open the series, then rushed for two yards. Two plays later, he completed a pass for a four-yard gain.
Ohio State left tackle Jamarco Jones had to leave the game with an injury. Then came two false starts. Faced with 3rd-and-13 near midfield, Haskins dropped back and delivered a 27-yard dime to Austin Mack on the sideline.
Two plays later, he escaped a collapsing pocket and took off for a gain of 22, coming only one yard shy of reaching the pylon.
J.K. Dobbins punched it in on the next play. The Wolverines surrendered their lead and wouldn’t get it back.
It was a performance that encapsulated all that Michigan has tried to do. Ohio State put the ball in Haskins’ hands with confidence and the fans embraced it — some even called for it after the Buckeyes lost to Iowa. And Haskins delivered, exuding a swagger that loomed large over Michigan Stadium.
After the game, sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary said Michigan knew what Haskins liked to do. McCray said he was “about the same as J.T.”
He looked better.
The Wolverines may have known what Haskins liked to do, but he did it anyway — completing six of his seven attempts for 94 yards, all while rushing three times for 24 yards.
“We knew that the guy behind (Barrett) was pretty good,” McCray said. “We wanted to play our game, keep playing our game — didn’t want to change anything. He came in and did a great job.”
Just like that, for the second time in four years, J.T. Barrett left the second half injured against Michigan and the Buckeyes’ backup again did what he needed to. This time it was Haskins. Last time it was Cardale Jones.
Of course, Jones’ experience was different. Ohio State was up by seven, and with Ezekiel Elliot in the backfield, he was asked to throw the ball just three times. But we all know where Jones eventually took the Buckeyes.
Perhaps that says more than we think about the state of these two programs. Ohio State’s roster can be supported by backups, seemingly without a dropoff. The Buckeyes went to the College Football Playoff as the youngest team in the country, according to Phil Steele of ESPN.
The Wolverines entered this season in a similar situation. They finished fourth in the Big Ten East.
As for the on-the-field rivalry, Michigan hasn’t been very fortunate. Since 2007, only two of Michigan’s starting quarterbacks have entered the Ohio State game healthy and left the same way. One of those instances came in 2011, when Denard Robinson amassed 337 all-purpose yards and five total touchdowns to lead Michigan past Ohio State for the only time in this decade.
There was no superhero performance this Saturday, though. With Brandon Peters and Wilton Speight sidelined, Michigan’s hand was forced.
Jim Harbaugh put the keys in his backup’s hands too, but it looked like the emergency brake was on.
O’Korn struggled early, missing open receivers for what should have been routine completions. He missed a wide-open Chris Evans on 4th-and-4. And with a final chance to change the rivalry — at least for a year — he misread coverage and sailed a pass into the arms of Ohio State’s Jordan Fuller.
For what it’s worth, O’Korn personified a leader after the game. He sat at a podium, and he fielded questions. He took responsibility for the loss. He choked up in front of a room of crowded people, trying to come to grips with the reality that another senior class — one he himself is a part of — was leaving Ann Arbor without a win over the Buckeyes.
But maturity simply wasn’t enough. Another year came, and another year went.
The dust has now settled.
Michigan has been dealt a tough hand for the better part of 10 years.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has triumphed regardless of the hand it was dealt.
And therein lies the point: when you’re sitting at the table with the sharks, you still need to find a way to win.
Santo can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.